Calves getting good quality colostrum in their first 2 hours is crucial and stands to them long afterwards.

They are born with a very poorly developed immune system, but antibodies found in a cow’s first milk after giving birth can help build it up.
Good quality colostrum doesn’t just happen, and as well as using pre-calver, there are a number of measures you can take to give your calf the best start in life.
Here are a few things to bear in mind to help you maximise your calf’s chances:

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Ensure your cow is well-nourished

This seems like it is a given but it is still worth a mention. Suckler cattle are generally well nourished, but if they are feed-restricted late in pregnancy, problems can arise.
This applies especially to thin cows and first-calvers.
In dairy cattle, higher yielding cows tend to have a lower quality colostrum. Holstein cows have the lowest quality colostrum of the dairy breeds.

Don’t mix colostrum with transition milk

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Colostrum, or beastings, only accounts for the first milk after giving birth. Milk from the second to eighth milkings is known as transition milk.
Transition milk should not be mixed with colostrum and fed to calves.
It contains less antibodies, than colostrum, and is not saleable.

Timing is key

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It is vital to get colostrum into the calf’s system as soon as possible after birth, ideally the 2 hours.
Newborn calves have an increased ability to absorb antibodies, but as soon as they hit the ground this ability starts to decline.
This boost lasts until around 24 hours after birth.
A handy way to remember best practice for colostrum feeding is 1, 2, 3:

  • 1st milk only
  • Within 2 hours of birth
  • 3 litres

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Don’t use colostrum from a cow on antibiotics

If your cow is on antibiotics or suffering from mastitis, you should not feed the calf colostrum.
This doesn’t apply for dry cow treatment unless the period was abnormally short.

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Given the essential nutrients a calf can get, not being receiving colostrum from the dam can be a big blow for the calf.
However, you can prepare a contingency plan.
Colostrum from other cattle in your herd can be taken and frozen for a rainy day.
A tip for storing frozen colostrum is to use ziploc bags – they seal, give plenty of surface area to heat the colostrum and are handy to pour out into a bottle/stomach pump.
In dairy herds, you should not freeze the colostrum from first-calvers.

Colostrum should be given at the calf’s body temperature

If you are reheating frozen colostrum you should keep a thermometer on hand to measure the temperature.
Ideally, colostrum is given to calves at their own body temperature, around 38 degrees.
Check out our Calving essentials checklist for more information.